- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Uncle Sam’s paper lions once again enter the Ryder Cup bearing the favorite’s uneasy burden.

In recent years, reams have been written about why a U.S. team that always seems statistically superior to its transatlantic counterpart is routinely outperformed at the Ryder Cup. Entering this week’s 35th matches at Oakland Hills, Europe has bested supposedly stronger American teams in three of the last four meetings, including a 15-1/2-12-1/2 spanking at the Belfry two years ago.

The most prevalent theory for Europe’s recent mastery in the biennial event involves the notion that the foreigners tend to bond better as a squad. Their egos are smaller. Their hearts are larger. Their capacity for functioning as a team, rather than 12 individuals, is supposedly greater. And the European players, like many pundits, believe they care more about one another and the event than their red, white and blue brethren.

“I’ve had the pleasure of playing a few more events in Europe this year, and I notice [that difference] quite significantly,” said Ryder Cup rookie Luke Donald, a PGA Tour regular from England. “Usually, there’s one hotel where all the players stay. They meet up at night and they all go out to dinner. Through that, they seem to have better friendships.

“Just the way the U.S. tour is spread out, there’s a million different hotels that people stay at. A lot of players travel with their families. They don’t spend as much time together off the course, and I think that’s why the Europeans are a little bit more friendly with each other.”

It’s lovely that the Europeans are more chummy than the Yanks, but attributing Europe’s success to that seems a bit specious.

The three best Ryder Cuppers in modern European history weren’t gregarious, back-slapping types. Nick Faldo, who accumulated a record 25 Ryder Cup points, was a notoriously prickly loner. Spain’s Seve Ballesteros (221/2 points) had a standoffish ego the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. And current captain Bernhard Langer (24 points) is a nearly mute, born-again Christian — not exactly the natural third for an all-night boozer with Ian Woosnam and Sam Torrance. Fact is, being friendly with your teammates is crucial; being beer-drinking, meal-sharing, joke-swapping best friends is overrated.

“Man, we have all been friends since way before we got here,” U.S. captain Hal Sutton said yesterday. “But let me tell you something — being best pals with somebody doesn’t get that ball in the hole any quicker.”

So why have the Europeans tended to blossom every other year while the Americans wilt? Quite simply, because exactly the opposite is expected to happen. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than being labeled the favorite in a format that loves to mock the form book.

Once again this week, the U.S. squad has been dubbed the favorite. The average U.S. player is ranked 18.7 in the world; his European counterpart 38.3. Only one American is ranked outside the top 40 (No.59 Fred Funk); half of Europe’s team checks in below No.40.

The Europeans are fond of reminding everyone within earshot that the U.S. team features five major champions (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love, Jim Furyk and David Toms), while no player on their team has yet to record a Slam salvo. Fact is, Europe relishes its underdog status even more than the U.S. despises being labeled the favorite.

“We are the poor country cousins trying to prove ourselves every time we turn up at a Ryder Cup,” said Ireland’s Padraig Harrington. “That’s why we get so inspired.”

The reality is that there isn’t a real favorite in match play. If both teams played 72 holes of stroke play around 7,077-yard, par-70 Oakland Hills this week, the U.S. team would certainly be favored, because over that number of stroke-play holes, talent and experience will win out. But in one 18-hole match anything can, and does, happen. Inferior players get hot. Partners are present to clean up your mess, make birdie while you’re carding bogey and generally de-emphasize a floundering teammate.

The vagaries of the format — particularly the four-balls and foursomes — are the great equalizer, reducing a wonder like Tiger Woods (5-8-2 career) to pedestrian while elevating a forgettable like Bernard Gallacher (13-13-5) to formidable. Match play’s push toward equilibrium is the reason that the largest margin of victory in the event since 1987 has been three points.

Both teams are quite aware of the format’s nature, match play’s little secret. But the public is blinded by Uncle Sam’s superior resumes. That’s exactly why Europe continues to trumpet the Americans as favorites, and why the Americans bristle when described as underachievers.

“You know, being an underdog offers you an opportunity to have the attitude that if you fail, everybody thought you would fail, so you can take solace in that,” said Sutton of the European mentality. “It’s like a free run, because you can play like you have nothing to lose.”

The Americans, on the other hand, always seem to enter the Ryder Cup with nothing to gain. Win and the world shrugs; lose and it unloads a browbeating. That’s the psychological duality that has been at play in each of the last four Ryder Cups. The European team is enthused by the opportunity to win and a favorable format, while the U.S. squad is simply afraid of losing.

Given that dynamic, it’s safe to assume that this week’s matches once again will yield European temerity, U.S. stress and a painfully close result. And given recent history, perhaps you have to fancy the foreigners once again.

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